If you're like me, you use reviews in one of two ways: either you're trying to decide whether to buy something or you're trying to see if other people feel the same way about something you already bought. I think Madden reviews tend to fall in this second class. The people who buy Madden every year already know they're going to get it, and they'll check reviews just to see whether or not they agree with the critics. For me, the small iterative changes to the series need to pile up for a couple of years before I'm motivated to buy the latest version. So when I heard about the new feature list for this year, I looked at my copy of Madden 08 on the shelf and thought, "It is time."
Overall, the series continues to raise the bar in a number of minor ways in the hopes that the sum total of all these smaller changes will result in a substantially improved experience. When game publishers send games to reviewers, they usually include a sheet or two that highlight the new features. For Madden NFL 12 we got dozens of pages highlighting each and every change: The ball is 20% smaller now, which finally brings it to the correct scale; QBs can now pump fake to psyche out defenders; managers can make use of cut days during training to refine their rosters during the pre-season. Taken individually, these changes might not seem significant; taken together, they can move the series in a significant new direction.
For the most part, the improvements do work and do make the game both more realistic and more compelling. The new collision system and the animations enhance the look and feel of the game. Players seem to be making real contact with each other and, while the developer's claims that the new system eliminates warping and binding, where players defy the laws of physics, might be overstated, it does feel more like real football now. Hits are hard and players can reliably lock down linebackers and receivers without the action feeling fake or forced, at least in the default view during the plays. During some of the replays, you're bound to notice some stiff, mannequin-like animations whenever players have to interact with each other or the ball. There's also still some slipping and clipping here and there, which can be particularly unsettling when players walk through each other and the officials between plays.
That said, the play itself feels very natural. The AI is much more difficult than in the previous versions of Madden, which means the opposing team's defense actually defends now. From sacks to swatting down passes to diving after runners, the enemy AI generally makes smart decisions, which can keep the scores down to a more realistic level than has been seen in the more recent versions of the game. It also means that this version of Madden is hard. On offense, players will have to make smarter calls and be able to reliably read the defense on each and every play. Those deep zone defenders aren't shy about getting in the way of your passes. I tried using the new pump fake to shake them off, but they must be smarter than I am. The one weak spot is that you can still take a blitz-heavy defense and demolish all but the most skilled teams.